A Little Chautauqua History

The Chautauqua movement was founded in 1874 on the banks of New York’s Lake Chautauqua. The original intent was simply to edify rural teachers, but it soon became a place where thousands of families could gather together for several days of inspiration, education, and enjoyment. People came from miles around to hear speakers of national renown, enjoy bands & plays, and engage in an open forum on the great issues of their day. The idea spread.

In 1878, the New York Chautauqua initiated the first book club in our country, eventually sponsoring more than 10,000 local reading circles in towns all across the land. At the turn of the century, Traveling Chautauquas were first introduced, and in their heyday there were 21 such troupes operating on 93 circuits, reaching a phenomenal 35 million people a year! Teddy Roosevelt was so taken by the radical democratic spirit of the original Chautauqua Tours, he exclaimed, "The Chautauqua is the most American thing in America." Try this one. You’ll see why.


Once you start exploring the populist ferment of the early chautauqua era, you see extraordinary parallels between their plight and our own:
"The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized... The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists... The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented in the history of the world, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty.

"We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform... They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires." -- From the Populist Platform of 1892

The populists fought the good fight, but were finally vanquished early in the last century by the corporate-owned press, police and politicians of the day. They were soon replaced by more accommodating union movements and the so-called "progressives" who were willing to settle for piecemeal reforms rather than contest the basic structure and growth of corporate power. Though the populists were crushed and largely erased from high school history, it is amazing to realize that 120 years ago populist firebrands like the Knights of Labor had over 700,000 national members (with over 120 lodges in Maine) and were openly calling for full racial integration, equal wages for women, public control of basic utilities, and consumer/producer cooperatives to replace wage-slave factories. In many ways, they were visionary ancestors of the anti-corporate rule movement, and the issues that they raised are still central to our cause.


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